‘Ape technology’ by Kathelijne Koops

‘Ape technology’ by Kathelijne Koops

Today I had the incredible opportunity to speak about my passion for chimpanzees and bonobos to a wonderful audience at the Hay Festival. It has been an absolute pleasure being here.

My research on wild apes focusses on the evolution of technology.  Humans use tools in nearly all aspects of daily life. But how did we become such technological beings? To answer this question we need more information about our evolutionary past. Unfortunately, we cannot go back in time to see how our hominin ancestors lived, so we must turn to our primate cousins, the great apes, instead.

Chimpanzees and bonobos are our closest living relatives. We share a common evolutionary history until about seven million years ago, and they diverged from their last common ancestor about one million years ago. Yet, despite their genetic closeness, the two species differ in a number of important ways. One of the most striking differences lies in their reliance on technology. Chimpanzees are renowned for their use of tools, including cracking nuts with stones and catching ants with sticks. Bonobos, on the other hand, use surprisingly few tools and none for feeding.

So I set off to Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo to investigate why tool use in chimpanzees and bonobos is so different. I wanted to know whether the two species are intrinsically different, in terms of their innate predispositions, or whether the tool use difference may be explained by extrinsic differences, such as opportunities for tool use in the environment and learning how to use tools from others.

I discovered that both species had plentiful opportunities for tool use and that opportunities to learn skills from others could not explain the tool use difference. However, I did find a difference in the predisposition for tool use. Young chimpanzees engaged much more with objects than young bonobos, a step towards explaining the complex tool use found in adult chimpanzees. By studying the use of technology in our closest living relatives, I not only aim to learn more about human evolution, but also to increase awareness of our close evolutionary links with the African apes and promote the conservation of our endangered cousins.


Photo by Mary Perez